A Month of Christmas: Holiday Mail

United States - Scott #1730 (1977)
United States – Scott #1730 (1977)

This Month of Christmas posts on A Stamp A Day has caused me to reflect greatly upon memories of Christmases past, primarily from my own childhood. It isn’t easy being an expatriate living in a country far away from one’s family and the holidays can be a difficult time. I have battled with manic depressive disorder since my teens and forcing myself to focus on Christmas each and every day of December has been an extremely therapeutic way to combat the winter blues (I still think of it as wintertime constantly roasting in the subtropical heat). In terms of good tidings and cheer this year, I went way above and beyond — not only with the ASAD articles but also donning full Santa Claus regalia on five separate days to become the awaited guest of honor at several different local schools’ holiday events. I had a great time and let nothing stand in the way of maintaining great happiness. Perhaps I’ve kicked this depression thing away for good.

I have always “lived” for the mail. When I moved to New Mexico, I used to drive to remote post offices in the middle of nowhere so I could mail myself cards — a practice I maintain whenever I actually go somewhere (I even mailed myself some postcards when I worked in a neighboring province last month). My interest received a huge boost when I discovered and joined Postcrossing less than a year after the project was launched. I have a rather large collection of postcards from 80 different countries as well as a mid-sized collection of interesting Christmas cards received over the years and a growing collection of vintage Christmas postcards, some of which I have shared on the Postcards to Phuket blog. Yes, more than any other time of the year, I love receiving mail during the Winter holidays. However, my mailbox has remained completely empty for more than a month now. I refuse to believe that sending a simple Christmas card has become a “lost art” due to the convenience of e-cards and Facebook.

Christmas card mailed in 1913

Postcard mailed from Seattle, Washington, on Christmas Eve 1913.
Postcard with Christmas greetings mailed from Seattle, Washington, on Christmas Eve 1913.

It may have been forgotten that a Christmas card is sent as part of the traditional celebration of Christmas in order to convey between people a range of sentiments related to Christmastide and the holiday season. Christmas cards are usually exchanged during the weeks preceding Christmas Day by many people (including some non-Christians) in Western society and in Asia. The traditional greeting reads “wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. There are innumerable variations on this greeting, many cards expressing more religious sentiment, or containing a poem, prayer, Christmas song lyrics or Biblical verse; others focus on the general holiday season with an all-inclusive “Season’s greetings”.

A Christmas card is generally commercially designed and purchased for the occasion. The content of the design might relate directly to the Christmas narrative with depictions of the Nativity of Jesus, or have Christian symbols such as the Star of Bethlehem or a white dove representing both the Holy Spirit and Peace. Many Christmas cards show Christmas traditions, such as seasonal figures (e.g., Santa Claus, snowmen, and reindeer), objects associated with Christmas such as candles, holly, baubles, and Christmas trees, and Christmastime activities such as shopping, caroling, and partying, or other aspects of the season such as the snow and wildlife of the northern winter. Some secular cards depict nostalgic scenes of the past such as crinolined shoppers in 19th century streetscapes; others are humorous, particularly in depicting the antics of Santa and his elves.

The first recorded Christmas cards were sent by Michael Maier to James I of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1611. It was discovered in 1979 by Adam McLean in the Scottish Record Office. They incorporated Rosicrucian imagery, with the words of the greeting — “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612” — being laid out to form a rose.

The world's first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843.
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843.

The next cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in London on May 1, 1843. The central picture showed three generations of a family raising a toast to the card’s recipient: on either side were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor. Allegedly the image of the family drinking wine together proved controversial, but the idea was shrewd: Cole had helped introduce the Penny Post three years earlier. Two batches totaling 2,050 cards were printed and sold that year for a shilling each.

Early British cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead favoring flowers, fairies and other fanciful designs that reminded the recipient of the approach of spring. Humorous and sentimental images of children and animals were popular, as were increasingly elaborate shapes, decorations and materials. At Christmas 1873, the lithograph firm Prang and Mayer began creating greeting cards for the popular market in Britain The firm began selling the Christmas card in America in 1874, thus becoming the first printer to offer cards in America. Its owner, Louis Prang, is sometimes called the “father of the American Christmas card.”

Christmas Eve published by Joseph C. Hoover & Sons, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Christmas card printed by chromolithography, 1880. From the collection of the Library of Congress.
Christmas Eve published by Joseph C. Hoover & Sons, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Christmas card printed by chromolithography, 1880. From the collection of the Library of Congress.

By the 1880s, Prang was producing over five million cards a year by using the chromolithography process of printmaking. However, the popularity of his cards led to cheap imitations that eventually drove him from the market. The advent of the postcard spelled the end for elaborate Victorian-style cards, but by the 1920s, cards with envelopes had returned. The extensive Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection from the Manchester Metropolitan University gathers 32,000 Victorian and Edwardian greeting cards, printed by the major publishers of the day, including Britain’s first commercially produced Christmas card.

The production of Christmas cards was, throughout the 20th century, a profitable business for many stationery manufacturers, with the design of cards continually evolving with changing tastes and printing techniques. The now widely recognized brand Hallmark Cards was established in 1913 by Joyce Hall with the help of brother Rollie Hall to market their self-produced Christmas cards. The Hall brothers capitalized on a growing desire for more personalized greeting cards, and reached critical success when the outbreak of World War I increased demand for cards to send to soldiers.

The World Wars brought cards with patriotic themes. Idiosyncratic “studio cards” with cartoon illustrations and sometimes risque humor caught on in the 1950s. Nostalgic, sentimental, and religious images have continued in popularity, and, in the 21st century, reproductions of Victorian and Edwardian cards are easy to obtain. Modern Christmas cards can be bought individually but are also sold in packs of the same or varied designs.

American Christmas card, circa 1920.
American Christmas card, circa 1920.

In recent decades, changes in technology may be responsible for the decline of the Christmas card. The estimated number of cards received by American households dropped from 29 in 1987 to 20 in 2004. Email and telephones allow for more frequent contact and are easier for generations raised without handwritten letters — especially given the availability of websites offering free email Christmas cards. Despite the decline, 1.9 billion cards were sent in the U.S. in 2005 alone. Some card manufacturers now provide E-cards. In the UK, Christmas cards account for almost half of the volume of greeting card sales, with over 668.9 million Christmas cards sold in the 2008 festive period. In mostly non-religious countries (e.g. Czech Republic), the cards are rather called New Year Cards, however they are sent before Christmas and the emphasis (design, texts) is mostly given to the New Year, omitting religious symbols.

 “Official” Christmas cards began with Queen Victoria in the 1840s. The British royal family’s cards are generally portraits reflecting significant personal events of the year.

Despite the governing practice of the separation of church and state within American politics, there is a long-standing custom for the President and First Lady to send White House Christmas Cards each holiday season. The practice originated with President Calvin Coolidge, who was the first president to issue a written statement of peaceful tidings during the holidays in 1927. President Herbert Hoover was the first to give Christmas notes to the White House staff, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to utilize the card format (rather than the previously used notes or a written statement) that most closely resembles the Christmas cards of today.

Chrismas card from U.S. President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, 2008

Christmas card from U.S. President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, 2008.
Christmas card from U.S. President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, 2008.

In 1953, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first official White House card. The cards usually depict White House scenes as rendered by prominent American artists. The number of recipients has snowballed over the decades, from just 2,000 in 1961 to 1.4 million in 2005. The Business Insider published a gallery of White House cards through the years in 2015.

Many businesses, from small local businesses to multi-national enterprises, send Christmas cards to the people on their customer lists, as a way to develop general goodwill, retain brand awareness and reinforce social networks. These cards are almost always discrete and secular in design, and do not attempt to sell a product, limiting themselves to mentioning the name of the business. The practice harkens back to trade cards of the 18th century, an ancestor of the modern Christmas card.

Many organizations produce special Christmas cards as a fundraising tool. The most famous of these enterprises is probably the UNICEF Christmas card program, launched in 1949, which selects artwork from internationally known artists for card reproduction. The UK-based Charities Advisory Trust gives out an annual “Scrooge Award” to the cards that return the smallest percentage to the charities they claim to support although it is not universally well received by the Christmas card producers.

This Tucker Corporation Christmas greeting card is probably from December 1947 as it illustrates the basic design of the Tucker '48, but it has non-production trim.
This Tucker Corporation Christmas greeting card is probably from December 1947 as it illustrates the basic design of the Tucker ’48, but it has non-production trim.

In addition to the Christmas stamps issued by many countries, small decorative stickers are also made to seal the back of envelopes, typically showing a trinket or some symbol of Christmas. In 2004, the German post office gave away 20 million free scented stickers, to make Christmas cards smell of a fir Christmas tree, cinnamon, gingerbread, a honey-wax candle, a baked apple and an orange.

From the beginning, Christmas cards have been avidly collected. Queen Mary amassed a large collection that is now housed in the British Museum. The University College London’s Slade School of Fine Art houses a collection of handmade Christmas Cards from alumni such as Paula Rego and Richard Hamilton and are displayed at events over the Christmas season, when members of the public can make their own Christmas cards in the Strang Print Room. Specimens from the “golden age” of printing (1840s–1890s) are especially prized and bring in large sums at auctions. In December 2005, one of Horsley’s original cards sold for nearly £9,000. Collectors may focus on particular images like Santa Claus, poets, or printing techniques. The Christmas card that holds the world record as the most expensive ever sold was a card produced in 1843 by J. C. Horsley and commissioned by civil servant Sir Henry Cole. The card, one of the world’s first, was sold in 2001 by UK auctioneers Henry Aldridge to an anonymous bidder for a record breaking £22,250.

Christmas card made on a PC, 2009
Christmas card made on a PC, 2009

Since the 19th century, many families and individuals have chosen to make their own Christmas cards, either in response to monetary necessity, as an artistic endeavour, or in order to avoid the commercialism associated with Christmas cards. With a higher preference of handmade gifts during the 19th century over purchased or commercial items, homemade cards carried high sentimental value as gifts alone. Many families make the creation of Christmas cards a family endeavour and part of the seasonal festivity, along with stirring the Christmas cake and decorating the tree. Over the years such cards have been produced in every type of paint and crayon, in collage and in simple printing techniques such as potato-cuts. A revival of interest in paper crafts, particularly scrapbooking, has raised the status of the homemade card and made available an array of tools for stamping, punching and cutting.

Advances in digital photography and printing have provided the technology for many people to design and print their own cards, using their original graphic designs or photos, or those available with many computer programs or online as clip art, as well as a great range of typefaces. Such homemade cards include personal touches such as family photos and holidays snapshots. Crowdsourcing, another trend enabled by the Internet, has allowed thousands of independent and hobbyist graphic designers to produce and distribute holiday cards around the world.

Many people send cards to both close friends and distant acquaintances, potentially making the sending of cards a multi-hour chore in addressing dozens or even hundreds of envelopes. The greeting in the card can be personalized but brief, or may include a summary of the year’s news. The extreme of this is the Christmas letter. Because cards are usually exchanged year after year, the phrase “to be off someone’s Christmas card list” is used to indicate a falling out between friends or public figures.

Christmas postcard of Santa Claus and his reindeer. Published by Souvenir Post Card Company, New York. December 1907 postmark.
Christmas postcard of Santa Claus and his reindeer. Published by Souvenir Post Card Company, New York. December 1907 postmark.

Some people take the annual mass-mailing of cards as an opportunity to update those they know with the year’s events, and include the so-called “Christmas letter” reporting on the family’s doings, sometimes running to multiple printed pages. In the UK, these are known as round-robin letters. While a practical notion, Christmas letters meet with a mixed reception; recipients may take it as boring minutiae, bragging, or a combination of the two, whereas other people appreciate Christmas letters as more personal than mass-produced cards with a generic missive and an opportunity to “catch up” with the lives of family and friends who are rarely seen or communicated with. Since the letter will be received by both close and distant relatives, there is also the potential for the family members to object to how they are presented to others; an entire episode of Everybody Loves Raymond was built around conflict over the content of just such a letter.

During the first 70 years of the 19th century it was common for Christmas and other greeting cards to be recycled by women’s service organizations who collected them and removed the pictures, to be pasted into scrap books for the entertainment of children in hospitals, orphanages, kindergartens and missions. With children’s picture books becoming cheaper and more readily available, this form of scrap-booking has almost disappeared.

The U.K. conservation charity Woodland Trust runs an annual campaign to collect and recycle Christmas cards to raise awareness of recycling and collect donations from corporate sponsors and supporters. All recycled cards help raise money to plant more trees. In the 12 years that the Woodland Trust Christmas Card Recycling Scheme has been running, more than 600 million cards have been recycled. This has enabled the Woodland Trust to plant more than 141,000 trees, save over 12,000 tons of paper from landfill and stop over 16,000 tonnes of CO2 from going into the atmosphere — the equivalent to taking more than 5,000 cars off the road for a year. The scheme has had celebrity supporters including Jo Brand, Dermot O’ Leary and Sean Bean and is the longest running scheme of its type in the country.

United States - Scott #1730 (1977) first day cover (reverse with Fleetwood cachet explaining
United States – Scott #1730 (1977) first day cover (reverse with Fleetwood cachet explaining “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry).

On October 21, 1977, the United States Postal Service released two Christmas stamps. Scott #1729 was a 13-cent stamp first available on that date at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The stamp commemorates the 200th anniversary of Washington’s army’s brutal stay at Valley Forge, during which Washington wrote, “We have this day no less than 2898 men now in Camp unfit for duty because they are bare foot or otherwise naked. Unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of three things. Starve, dissolve, or dispense.” The stamp, designed by Steven Dohanos, is based upon the painting by J.C. Leyendecker. One of my ancestors was a “master forager” in the Continental Army and was present at Valley Forge during that terrible winter.

Dolli Tingle designed the contemporary Christmas stamp, first available on October 21, 1977, in Omaha, Nebraska. Scott #1730 pictured a snow-covered rural mailbox brimming with cards and packages. Rural mailboxes came into use in 1896 and represented a new link for isolated farm families with the rest of the world. This 13-cent stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using the photogravure process, perforated 11. There were 921,530,000 copies of the stamp issued. The cachet on my first day cover of this issue portrays a scene from O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”, an explanation of which is printed on the reverse side of the envelope.

Flag of the United States, 1959-date

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